Learn Japanese(Basic Hiragana)

Author: Tarstark    Editor: nellstewart

Hello.  This is just going to be a very basic intro into the Japanese language, specifically the reading aspect of it.

First off, there are a few things you need to know about the Japanese alphabet and the ways it differs from the English alphabet.

1.  In English, we read left to right, but in Japan, you read right to left, especially if the characters are arranged vertically. The most commonly given/known reason for this is due to the original method of passing written information in Japan(and China). Namely scrolls.  Scrolls were opened that way, and as you can imagine, written vertically as well.

2.  The alphabet.

There are 26 characters in the English alphabet and the way we arrange them can change the way we read what is written.

There are 3 different alphabets in Japanese.

  • Hiragana: the basic letters, has 46 symbols, however there are actually more sounds, i.e. Ha -> Ba, created when you add in the combo’s, or variations.)[These are curved in appearance]
  • Katakana: normally used for foreign words(i.e. microwave), foreign names(i.e. Chris would be spelled Kurisu[the u at the end, especially if it’s su,should be dropped when converting to English]), and sometimes for other animal names, or sounds(More on that in the future). [These are straight in appearance]
  • Kanji:  The confusing one.  Think of this one as words or depending on how it’s used a half word.  By the time you finish compulsory education(high school), you should be able to easily recognize and read 2,000(if you actually went to school and tried.  A lot of Japanese schools actually have a ladder system).  A professor, or well-educated/person who reads more, should know 5,000.  Supposedly there are actually around 50,000.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for some people, depending on what they are reading[i.e. a scholarly/science paper] to have a dictionary with them[More on that in the future).

Let’s go back to Hiragana now, because this is the most important one, and honestly, depending on what you plan to do, i.e. just read raw mangas, the only one you’ll need.

Here is a hiragana chart.

I got this from a website, and I want to point out that the top right column is the one you need to learn first.

A – I – U – E – O.

Remember, you are learning to read Japanese, not English.  It’s in English where the vowels are ordered, A, E, I, O, U.  When you practice your Japanese pronunciation be sure that you practice your vowels in the correct order.  This is important because all of the hiragana symbols are ordered with the vowels in that order.

It’s not Ha, He, Hi, Ho, Hu.

It’s Ha, Hi, Hu, He, Ho.

Pronunciation.  You can watch a youtube link to see how to pronounce the sounds, but the key thing to remember is that you have to know the vowel sounds because the consonants are easy, but they all rely on the vowel.

A – as in Aaaaaaahh(just an example of the sound being long, it should be nice and short obviously).  I as in E.  U similar to oooohh, E similar to Eh, O similar to Ohhhh.(All nice and short)

The chart provides other examples of how to get the sound, and the youtube link also provides it.

So, practice seeing the symbols, try to read them, and say the sounds in your head.

Now to quickly point out a few things.

K turns to G when you add the dakuten(think quotation mark).

H turns to B when you add the dakuten.

S turns to Z when you add the dakuten(Shi turns to Ji).

T turns to D when you add the dakuten(Chi turns to Ji, Tsu turns to Zu).

H turns to P when you add the handakuten(think the little small circle to the top right of F & C in temperature).

So using Romaji(where you use the English alphabet in place of the Japanese alphabet to write out the words[i.e. Wilhelm(viruherumu), Filma(firuma), Chris(kurisu)] to write out the alphabet, the following are how the hiragana symbols would look and be read.


  • A (あ), I (い), U (う), E (え), O (お)
  • Ka (か), Ki (き), Ku (く), Ke (け), Ko (こ)
  • Sa (さ), Shi (し), Su (す), Se (せ), So (そ) (Note it’s Shi, not Si)
  • Ta (た), Chi (ち), Tsu (つ), Te (て), To (と) (Note it’s Chi, not Ti, and Tsu not Tu)
  • Na (な), Ni (に), Nu (ぬ), Ne (ね), No (の)
  • Ha (は), Hi (ひ), Fu (ふ), He (へ), Ho (ほ) (Note it’s Fu, not Hu)
  • Ma (ま), Mi (み), Mu (む), Me (め), Mo (も)
  • Ra (ら), Ri (り), Ru (る), Re (れ), Ro (ろ)
  • Ya (や), Yu (ゆ), Yo (よ)
  • Wa (わ), Wo (お)
  • N (ん)


  • Ga (が), Gi (ぎ ), Gu (ぐ), Ge (げ), Go (ご)
  • Za (ざ), Ji (じ), Zu (ず), Ze (ぜ), Zo (ぞ) (Note it’s Ji, not Zi)
  • Da (だ), Ji (ぢ), Zu (づ ), De (で), Do (ど) (Note it’s Ji, not Di and Zu not Du)
  • Ba (ば), Bi (び), Bu (ぶ), Be (ぶ), Bo (ぼ)


  • Pa (ぱ), Pi (ぴ), Pu (ぷ), Pe (ぺ), Po (ぽ)

Those are the “basic” letters.  The G, Z, D, B, & P are considered slightly different sounds,but not different letters since you only had to add a mark to create them, so let’s keep going.

Next, there is the “N”, the Wa, Wo, and Ya, Yu, & Yo.

N is self-explanatory.  You’ll often see it on it’s own, and this will be one of the quickest ones you’ll recognize.  Same with Wa & Wo.

So I actually want to look at Ya, Yu, & Yo.  These are given a little extra attention because of what they can & will do.

They can be like the others, as you see in Yama, Yuzuha, et cetra.

However, they are also used to make new words & sounds if they turn into “yōon”s

Yōon means that the Ya, Yu, or Yo are put into a smaller form and put next to a regular symbol.

I.e. きょ.  That isn’t written as Kiyo, it is written as Kyo.  Or you could have used みゅ, and instead of Miyu, it is Myu.

These yōons are often how the sounds are created., kya, myo, hya, sha., and how other words are created, like Kyoto.


  • Kya (きゃ), Kyu (きゅ), Kyo (きょ)
  • Sha (しゃ), Shu (しゅ), Sho (しょ) (Note it’s Sha, Shu and Sho, not Sya, Syu, and Syo)
  • Cha (ちゃ), Chu (ちゅ), Cho (ちょ) (It’s Cha, Chu and Cho, not Cya, Cyu, and Cyo)
  • Nya (にゃ), Nyu (にゅ), Nyo (にょ)
  • Hya (ひゃ), Hyu(ひゅ), Hyo (ひょ)
  • Mya (みゃ), Myu (みゅ), Myo (みょ)
  • Rya (りゃ), Ryu (りゅ), Ryo (りょ)
  • Gya (ぎゃ), Gyu (ぎゅ ), Gyo (ぎょ)
  • Ja (じゃ), Ju (じゅ), Jo (じょ) (Note it’s Ja, Ju, Jo not Jya, Jyu, Jyo)
  • Ja (ぢゃ), Ju (ぢゅ), Jo (ぢょ ) (Same as above, it’s pronounced as Ja, Ju, Jo )
  • Bya (びゃ), Byu (びゅ), Byo (びょ)
  • Pya (ぴゃ), Pyu (ぴゅ), Pyo (ぴょ)

Now, that actually is the 46 symbols.  However, like with the yōon, there is 1 other thing that pops up pretty commonly and so I want to point it out.

That is, Tsu.  つ.  Or rather, っ.  When it is like that., it is called a Sokuon

Just like how Ya, Yu, & Yo can change a symbol when they become smaller, it is the same with Tsu.

In its regular form, you write and read it as is.  However, in the smaller form, you do not put tsu. Instead, it is used to mark that the next consonant sound should be lengthened, and yes, this also changes the meaning of the word.

やた – Yata – could maybe mean eight ata(old unit of measurement for circumference[google Yata no Kagami, or yata and Shaku])or start the kanji for arrow, house, ricefield, et cetra.  矢田 or 家田.

やった – Yatta – could mean to have done something, hit, harm, sleep with, perform a play, depending on the kanji you used.  e.g. 演った(yatta)

BTW, the reason why Nell asked me to write this is because I lived in Japan for 4 years, and during that time I became pretty good at speaking Japanese(I have since lost most of it, but could still at least get around town and get what I need if I had to), and was fluent at reading hiragana/katakana and recognized several Kanji on sight.

I mention that because this is the end of the 1st part.  There are things I probably didn’t cover enough, or should mention more of, or quite honestly., stuff I just didn’t think about because.. well, what I consider obvious may not be to others(I almost forgot to mention the Tsu thing until I realized that would probably pop up and some people may not know what it was for)

So, let me mention some last minute tips and thoughts to help you.

As I said.  If you just want to read the raw manga of your favorite series, hiragana will probably be all you need.  When you see a japanese manga, they all write it mostly in Kanji & Hiragana, however the target audience is usually teenagers or pre-teens.  They don’t expect them to know every kanji, so to the right in small print, you will often find the hiragana used to make that kanji.  As such, just by reading a manga in Japanese, you will start to quickly recognize the very very common kanjis’,

i.e. 私 – Watashi – I   or 何 – Nani – What.

So, if you prefer a specific type of genre.  Fighting, Adventure, Mecha, School life. The more of that manga you read, the faster you will get, and the more Kanji you will learn that is associated with that particular genre.

(Note: Some people think that writing things out in Romaji actually hurts you as it not only adds an extra step, it gets you used to learning it in English instead of just learning the Japanese.  This is up to you.  I converted things to English in my head at first as I had trouble with it, and it did make it easier for me., but I also have a bad memory.  If you have a good memory., then feel free to write it in Hiragana instead of English, and this will help you get better at writing out the hiragana, and you may learn it faster this way.  But again, up to you and your memory)


Get a notebook and write it down.  It’ll be annoying at first, but write down all of the hiragana & katakana.  Do this for the first few days, weeks, or months, depending on how often you try to read a manga, and you will start to look at a hiragana chart less often, stop second-guessing yourself, and eventually just write down whole sections at a time.  Once you are at that stage, it’s up to you if you wish to continue doing so.


Find a cheap romaji/hiragana online dictionary that lets you look up each kanji.  As I said., the hiragana is often given for the kanji’s used in a manga.  But so what?

Honestly, even if you know what makes it up, unless you actually have a way to find that particular kanji, then you’re still in the dark.

夏 – なつ  That kanji is made by putting Na Tsu together.  But knowing that kanji is read/pronounced as Natsu helps you how?

There are a few programs out there, and when I did fan translations for a short while, I used NJ Star Japanese(can google it).  It lets you type in Romaji, so can type Natsu, and then as you type in the romaji, it’ll automatically show the hiragana and the possible kanji’s, which will be changed or eliminated as you type in more stuff(some kanji have 3 hiraganas).

By this way, in this case, the above kanji, Natsu, means “Summer”.

Anyways, NJ Star only has a 30 day free trial., there are probably others out there., but that’s the one I’m most familiar with.

If you have any questions or comments, let me know.  I did use two sites http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiragana and http://www.japanese-lesson.com/characters/hiragana/

to try to make sure I didn’t forget anything as it has been several years since I left Japan, but everyone makes mistakes.


Comments (19)

  • kirindas
    June 14, 2015 at 1:24 PM

    Thanks for the lesson! I’m always looking for supplements as I try to self study and learn Japanese.

    • nellstewartAuthor
      June 14, 2015 at 1:39 PM

      No problem, if you have any question, feel free to ask here 🙂

    • Starry Sky
      June 16, 2015 at 7:50 AM

      Thanks ^^ btw If you don’t mind could you list most common word use for day to day conversation?

  • akkisan
    June 14, 2015 at 1:58 PM

    I only skimmed through it, but I think you got most of the essential things covered. 🙂
    It was nice to read it as it gave me a review of the things I learnt last year.

  • killerwakka
    June 14, 2015 at 3:06 PM

    my bigest problem with learning japanese is with telling apart the symbols or regcognising the symbols

    • Christopher Lambert
      June 14, 2015 at 7:29 PM

      Do you mean the symbols in Kanji, or hiragana. If it’s hiragana, just have to keep practicing. If it’s Kanji, see if there are the hiragana next to it,. and other than that, it’s just lots and lots of practice.
      There are a few common symbols, but a lot are just knowing the kanji., Same with English.

  • midoyashii
    June 14, 2015 at 5:56 PM


  • Johanes Patrick
    June 15, 2015 at 7:10 AM

    mind if i request a basic kanji ? xD

  • Sultan Morales Maungco
    June 16, 2015 at 6:33 AM

    hi, I’ve been studying katakana and hiragana and kanji, although i memorized katakana and hiragana and a bit of kanji i cant understand what im reading, any tips on how to understand japanese?

    • Christopher Lambert
      June 19, 2015 at 5:10 PM

      Well, while it’s good that you know what the symbols mean, it more sounds like your problem is just basic vocabulary. So, just using a Japanese dictionary and taking your time and looking up the words as you go is probably your best bet. Find a manga geared toward younger readers or a basic Japanese book you want and just learn the words.
      Again though, picking something that you are interested in will help the best as people always memorize what they are interested in faster than stuff they are not.
      When I lived in Japan, I often either asked my co-workers(who were Japanese), or looked at a Japanese dictionary.
      Another thing to do is to figure out a sentence and then put in various words to get used to not just that sentence and it’s structure, but to increase your vocabulary.
      Watashi neko suki. I like cats. Or Watashi niku suki. I like meat. Watashi ame suki. I like the rain. Watashi anata suki. I like you. (btw ,the u may be silent., a lot of times it can be when it’s “su”).
      While just a simple word plug like that is silly, it does do 2 things.
      1. It gets you used not to just that simple sentence of how to say what you like, but when you think of things you like,
      2. you are also slowly increasing your vocabulary, thus helping you learn more words and making it easier for you to understand that sentence, listening or reading, when you hear/see it.

      • Ranji Nuri
        October 23, 2015 at 4:04 PM

        Um…Asian nation languages are so complicate to even pronounce and the letters are too identical. I learned English in a year but I bet it would take 5 to 10 years to be able to read manga or novel.

  • Nikolay Babkin
    June 16, 2015 at 6:07 PM

    By the way, not sure if it is necessary for you folks, but jisho.org is an absolutely awesome, fully-free online dictionary. Can’t recommend it enough.

  • Don Terrell Smith II
    June 19, 2015 at 2:41 AM

    I’m curious, if hiragana is what you need to read manga, what would you say about Light Novels or Web Novels? Kanji?

    • nellstewartAuthor
      June 19, 2015 at 2:46 AM

      To read LN or WN without using dictionary, you have to memorize at least 1000-1500 kanjis and its meaning.

    • Christopher Lambert
      June 19, 2015 at 5:16 PM

      Light novels and web novels are more for teenagers, young adults, or just adults who enjoy the genre, but the key thing is that they often have far less pictures.
      So, the audience is slightly different and thus, the way to do it is as well.
      I’m unsure yet if there will be a point to continue(the next one would be katakana., and other little common kanji’s if so), but who knows.
      For looking up kanji, it’s slightly more difficult when you consider that in English we just look up the first letter in the word, but it still follows the same train of thought.. just different. You find the root of the kanji and look it up by that, and then the number of strokes and so forth.
      So, if you take your time, find a Kanji dictionary(which will usually explain how to look it up), you will struggle at first as it takes you a while to find the root, and then as you get faster and faster, it’ll be the same as looking up an English word.. except your looking up the Kanji. And of course, this also means the more time you devote to it, the faster you’ll get, and the more kanji you will start to recognize.

  • kaleabhip
    June 21, 2015 at 1:09 AM

    Tarstark-san to Nell-san, otsukaresamadeshita.

  • bystander278
    August 20, 2015 at 10:13 PM

    I’ve tried studying Japanese for one month a few years back but thanks for the additional info!
    I guess this only proves that there are still a lot of things to learn.
    I’ve downloaded several apps on how to write katakana though because I only learned hiragana but I guess I am still too lazy up to this day.
    Sensei I have failed you as a student T^T
    Anyways, thanks once again 🙂

  • Chihsia Wang
    August 26, 2015 at 11:29 AM

    You learned Japanese for 1 year and you are able to read light novels? Is it because you are taking a college course and living Japan at the same time?

    • nellstewartAuthor
      August 27, 2015 at 11:21 AM

      I learned Japanese for long time before I enter college. 1 year (actually 1.5 years) is the formal education I took.

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